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Author: Jackson Ingram

Jackson Ingram | Barcelona, Spain | Post 2

Jackson Ingram | Barcelona, Spain | Post 2

At the end of our orientation in Granada, I found myself in another airport, desperately wanting to miss another flight. Not wanting to get on planes has kind of become my thing lately.

At that point, I had decided that Spain might end up being okay. I mean, really, Grenada was a sweet gig. All I had to do was sit through three hours of exceptionally boring classes each morning and then Nicolás (our dauntless director) would herd us through cobblestone streets the rest of the day, buying us food and wine and smiling politely as I continuously mixed up “ser” and “estar.” Why did we have to leave? Wouldn’t it be better to just live in a hotel the rest of the semester in the center of a tourist trap?

Nothing terrified me more than the prospect of meeting my host mother, whose name and address came to me on a print-out the day before our departure. Mari Carmen. Age 69. No pets. Well geez, no pets? What was even the point of studying abroad?

Only by burying my nose in Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical Wishful Drinking (5/5 stars, by the way) could I get through our hour-long flight. We hit a wave of turbulence during the last 20 minutes, and all I could think was, “Who will tell this Mari Carmen that we all died and that she should start looking for new renters?” We did not die, however, a dashed expectation that was quickly becoming a trend for my semester.

“Here lies Squidward’s hopes and dreams.”

I landed. I got in a cab. I tried to convince the cabbie to drive me back to Missouri, but he neither spoke English nor drove a seaworthy taxi. And despite my best attempt to melt into the floorboards, I eventually had to get out and meet this woman to whom I was to be bound for almost five months.

Mari Carmen and I were paired solely by the virtue of her vegetarianism, which would save me from the constant danger of intestinal failure via Spain’s pork obsession. She goes to the gym every day, used to own a cafetería and could probably bench press me. We kind of got off onto the wrong foot. The wrong several feet actually. She’s been doing this host-family thing for over 20 years. Her last Vassar student stayed for two semesters and allegedly spoke better Spanish than she did. I would have assured her that there was no danger in that with me, but suddenly I had forgotten every Spanish word I had learned over the past two and a half years.

We had many misunderstandings. I tended to just say “sí” to everything, whether I knew what the heck was going on or not, as this was one word I felt I had mastered. This is a mistake, [email protected] If you do not understand something, please tell your host family. You may worry about irritating your hosts or embarrassing yourself (both of which will happen anyway), but trust me, it’s way more frustrating when you’ve broken a rule you don’t understand and suddenly you’re wading through a stream of rapid-fire Spanish commands, not sure how to help your host mom clean up the vase of water she just dropped because every time you approach with a towel she starts screaming about broken glass and wet floors.

Interior design by Mari Carmen

Now that I’ve been here for over a month, Mari Carmen and I are much more comfortable with one another, and while we don’t hang out much, I’ve stopped hiding from her in my room. Besides our chats in the kitchen (which she refers to as her “oficina”) we have bonded over a gameshow called Pasapalabra. It’s like Spanish Wheel of Fortune but with more rules, more celebrity guests and more money. We’re obsessed with it. We watch it during dinner each night and while I seldom understand the announcer’s questions, I’ve still learned a lot from Mari Carmen’s commentary.

For example, she tells me that if a man has his left ear pierced, that’s the “the gay ear.” My seventh-grade sources claim it’s the right one, but I’m going to have to defer to Mari Carmen on this one since she has an extensive knowledge of the genders, sexualities and dating histories of each celebrity guest on the show. She even used to serve breakfast to Javier Cámara, star of the over-advertised hit comedy Es por tu bien. If you’ve watched any Spanish TV in the past six months, you’ve probably seen an ad for it. The movie looks terrible, but it’s my new claim to fame.

Mari Carmen didn’t make this, but it’s a good representation of Spanish portion sizes.

The host family experience, while no doubt the most direct route for Spanish immersion, varies wildly in the success of its execution. One of my friends hit it off so well with her host mother, that she’s already made plans to visit Madrid every year for like, the rest of their lives. Others have had less positive experiences. One guy in my program is in an endless domestic struggle to use the fridge and other basic amenities. Another one is living with a mosquito infestation. Despite my ups and downs this first month, it obviously could be worse, and for most students, it’s just a matter of time and adjustment to living with strangers who have their own customs and expectations. (Rules and customs that, I don’t know, maybe could have been explained a little more slowly using a more basic Spanish vocabulary. Just a thought!)

If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll make a life-long, elderly Spanish friend. If not…well, you can kill plenty of time en la Universidad, the sordid details of which I’ll save for my next post. Hasta luego, [email protected]

Jason Goldman | Berlin, Germany | Post 1

Jason Goldman | Berlin, Germany | Post 1

As I sit reflecting on my first month in Berlin, I can hardly fathom how fast the time has flown by. I know it’s cliché (what about having a travel blog isn’t cliché), but time really could not be moving faster right now. Living in a huge, bustling city like Berlin is such a dramatic and welcome change from life at Vassar, and I’m so grateful that I’m able to have this experience.

I suppose I can begin at the beginning. Disclosure: writing exclusively in German has probably completely screwed up my English prose, so please excuse the choppiness of this post. I arrived my first day to our hotel, where we were staying for only a few days before moving in with our host families. I had two hours to kill before I could check in, so I went for a walk around the area. To be honest it looked a lot like Beverly Hills, with designer stores and fancy glass shopping centers. Right in the middle of all of this consumerism was the ruined tower of the Gedächtniskirche, a structure which was left in its post-WWII state a reminder of the damage incurred during the war.

Seeing the church was my “oh right this is Europe” moment. Later in the day I met my roommate, and now one of my best friends on the program, Alessandro from Oberlin. He is also a vegan who likes classical music, so you could say it was fate that brought us together.

After some pretty mundane and casual orientation days, we were introduced to our host families. I was unbelievably nervous; I knew nothing about the family I was going to be living with for six months, and I hadn’t spoken a word of German during the entirety of break. Suddenly in walks a young man with an older couple, and my program coordinator, Claudia, introduces all of us. I learned that I was going to live alone with the younger man, the son of the other two, named Niklas, in his apartment in Kreuzberg. Not exactly my idea of what a host family situation entailed, but after conversing a bit in my crappy German, I learned that we had a lot in common. He also plays the piano and has his own piano in his apartment, which was a welcome surprise for me! My apartment turns out to be absolutely ideal. I have a great location, right in the “hip” area of the city, and my own balcony off my room.

Classes started the following Monday, and wow is it rough getting accustomed to commuting to school. With the subway (U-Bahn) it takes 45 minutes, and class starts at 9 am. We have language every day for three hours, plus a culture course on Mondays and Wednesdays. Additionally, my program offers a class on contemporary art, in which we go to a different museum each week and meet to discuss the art (in German) with the collector/docent. Even though I only understand about half of what is said, the exhibits are an amazing and stimulating experience to go to each week.

Warhol’s Mao at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

I quickly learn that for my other friends studying abroad, Berlin is a must-travel-to city. My friend studying in Copenhagen spontaneously booked a bus to Berlin one week, and I offered to have her stay over in my apartment. The next weekend my friend studying in Spain comes to stay with me, and this past weekend, my friend Gabby from Vassar who’s studying in Bologna came through. With all of these visits, I manage to see different things in the city. Together with my out-of-town friends, I’ve visited the East Side Gallery, a strip of the Berlin Wall that today features murals by various artists, the Jewish Museum, the Berlin Cathedral, the Holocaust Memorial and various other historical buildings and memorials.           

A snap with one of the more well-known panels of the East Side Gallery (yes I’m holding a beer—public drinking is legal here #litt)


Other highlights of my first month: through some interesting channels, I ended up meeting a group of other German students. Together with them and some of my other friends on the program, we played a German drinking game involving throwing a shoe at a beer bottle. If the bottle is knocked over, the opposing team has to drink as fast as possible in order to finish their alcohol before your team reclaims their shoe. I also have had dinner a few times with my host brother (? still not sure what to call him)’s family, and by the second time I was able to actually converse with them! Yay progress! My program also hooks us up with tickets to cultural events, so we’ve been to the opera and the symphony on many occasions. It could honestly not be more ideal for me.

Aaaand I think that about sums it up! I’m going to London this weekendmy first time traveling since being here, and I’m excited to get a glimpse into another European city. Tschau! (German spelling of “ciao”).

Rachel Ludwig | Paris, France | Post 2

Rachel Ludwig | Paris, France | Post 2

Although I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray all the way through (I’m a sham of an English major) I’ve recently been giving some thought a particular Oscar Wilde quote. I saw it few weeks back while sitting on le ligne 6, heading to Reid Hall for class. From what I could make out from behind the smudged Plexiglas and bobbing Parisian heads, it was something to do with the difference between existing and living. The full thing reads, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” I’m not sure if he realizes it, but Mr. Wilde sort of threw me with that one.

For about a week, which happened to be my February vacation, Oscar Wilde, sporting his fur collared overcoat and impossibly fluffy hair, followed me around Paris. On the metro, getting a sandwich, even buying tissues, there he was, hanging out, casually poking me like, “hey, so just wondering when the whole living thing was going to happen? Like timeline-wise where are we?” And while in some ways Mr. Wilde is right, I think I’d like to complicate his theory. If I could sharpie in something on that little metro ad, a task for which I definitely do not have the audacity, I would add a little note about the merits of allowing oneself the time to exist.

In a lot of ways, as the semester begins to pass increasingly quickly, it feels sacrilegious to have a “lazy” day in Paris. However, I think I’ve done some great existing this past month.

Sometimes, existing means just spending the day at home and doing laundry. I remember calling my parents, extremely satisfied with myself and telling them “I had such a productive day, I did the laundry and ran the dishwasher in French.” Understandably they where kind of like, “what the hell,” because pushing a few buttons with French words isn’t actually that hard. BUT, as I explained to them, that strange feeling of pride came from the fact that I was making a home for myself in Paris. Falling into a routine here has been immensely satisfying. Saturdays, I’ve been honing the perfect morning combination of visiting the Passy market, picking out a cheese from the fromagerie, grabbing a warm chocolate chip brioche from Aux Merveilleux de Fred, and heading home to relax and enjoy the afternoon. I’ve even tentatively opened my balcony doors a few times in order to enjoy my spoils with a tolerably frosty breeze.

Cheese from the local fromagerie

The epitome of my “existing” over the last few weeks actually happened the other day, as I was getting a bento box for lunch at a Japanese restaurant a few blocks away from my house. When I came up to the register to pay, expecting the usual “Bonjour,” followed by “dix euros s’il vous plaît,” the cashier said something rapidly in French, while smiling—which in French customer service is something of a rarity. What I think he said, after repeating it a second time, was possibly along the lines of “I think I recognize you from such and such place, do you work at such and such store?” Of course I handled this moment with the greatest dignity, turning bright red, saying “non” and sprinting out of Hana Bento. To be clear, this was probably the most flattering moment of my Parisian existence thus far, because for a moment, an actual Parisian confused me for one of his own.

Now, to appease Oscar Wilde, I’ve also done a decent amount of living this February. This week alone included two outings to the theatre, a meal of snails and pig’s feet at Bouillon Chartier, and a hilarious evening of jazz and sangria. To elaborate on the jazz, one of the tutors at Reid Hall invited us to come see her husband’s band, Cobra Fantastique, preform at a club near Bastille. Between a failed “la bisse” (the French tradition of greeting people with strange, irrational cheek kisses) and the jazz/funk combination, it was a singularly wonderful, very French evening.


Escargot at Chartier

Another highlight of this month was a visit to the Salon d’Agriculture, the national exhibition for produce, animals, cuisine and farming technology. Expecting something akin to the Ohio State Fair, I was on the fence about getting up early and spending my morning with a few French cows. However, hands down, the Salon d’Agriculture was probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Paris thus far. The event occupies the space of eight arena sized buildings dedicated to livestock, French cuisine and wine, rabbits and children, horses, dogs, international cuisine, technology and vegetables/fruits. I arrived planning to spend maybe an hour and ended up staying for six and skipping my literature class at Sorbonne Nouvelle (thanks Oscar Wilde). It was a blissful day full of free goat cheese samples, meeting famous, award-winning cows, and aggressively attempting to make the horses at the petting zoo acknowledge me.

Moi and cow at the Salon d’Agriculture


Salon d’Agriculture

Now, I’m not sure what category this falls into (Existing or Living) but I’ve also begun an internship at Lycée EIB Étoile, a bilingual French/English high school. On Thursday mornings, I work with two English creative writing classes at the “Seconde” level, which essentially corresponds to freshman year of high school. As an intern, I help the professor during “writing workshops” and work one on one with students to review their pieces for the week. Currently, the students are working on opinion papers, something completely foreign and difficult for French students. In the French writing system, students are taught to write extremely formulaically, with phrases like “I will present my argument in three parts,” and then they actually go on to explicitly list the three parts. So, creative writing, especially when it comes to presenting their personal opinions, is a challenge.

However, I was completely blown away by how thoughtful and strangely progressive their opinion paper topics—of their own choosing—were. As the students went around the room sharing their topics with the class, I was shocked by how many students wanted to tackle really serious topics, from abortion rights to equal pay to eating disorders. Of course, this is coming from the person who wrote a six-page opinion piece sophomore year of high school about cilantro (it’s the worst). What was most interesting to me was that two of those topics—abortion rights for women in the US and equal pay in the workplace—were presented by male students. It was actually kind of surreal sitting down with a 15 year old French boy and discussing current issues about the defunding of Planned Parenthood and refreshing to see how appalled he was by the state of women’s healthcare in the US.

Anyway, coming up this month, I’m looking forward to a day trip to Rouen, several papers/projects and a weeklong visit from my favorite Vassar Art History major! À la prochaine!

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 4

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 4

Reminiscing About the Phases of My Life and Some Lessons I’ve Learned

Plane rides have become the measurement of my life, something like the markings of each chapter. Back when I was much younger, I used to look forward in time whenever I arrived at an airport. After all, I only ever went to one for something like a family vacation, and who wouldn’t look forward to something like that, right? When you’re five, there’s really not much to reminisce about anyways. In a somewhat reluctant recognition, however, nowadays, the sight of planes takes me back in time through memories of my friends, troubles and legacy as passengers. Here, I simply reminisce about the different phases of my life and what I got out of each episode.

I’m pretty sure the first time I rode an airplane was when I was four, moving from Tokyo to California for my father’s work. We were supposed to stay for two years, but it wasn’t until nine years later that I moved back to Japan. Having spent the good majority of my childhood in California attending a public high school, I was very much a typical Californian kid. I really didn’t care much about school. In fact, I remember we had these “bad behavior slips” that the teacher sent out to our parents every week, and I broke the record for the most number of slips in the first week with a number that even kids on Santa’s blacklist would gawk at—fourteen. The moment the teacher said, “Kohei, you have fourteen this week,” my friend (whom I think had four) kindly made sure I heard correctly by shouting, “FOURTEEN?!” Ever since I was young, I loved the outdoors, and I would spend time with my neighbors almost every day playing basketball, attempting to catch rabbits (and succeeding once), going to the pool, or playing the “Lava Game” on the playgrounds. In this era, I simply learned the value of Fridays and how to have fun.

When I was thirteen, I moved back to Kobe in what I thought would be the worst day of my life. Within three weeks of moving back, I joined a Japanese soccer team, as I have been playing since the age of four. There, I encountered firsthand the strict culture of sports in Japan. During the summer of my first year in Japan, I probably had less than a week off total. The following summer was a particularly difficult one for me, becoming somewhat of a turning point in my life. It was a hot summer day, around 39°C/100°F, and we had three consecutive matches scheduled. I had to play in all of them (I won’t go into the details, but I didn’t really have a choice). I somehow managed to get through the games—albeit, just barely standing—but on my way home, I fell in the middle of the street from dehydration. I was carried to the hospital in an ambulance three hours away from home. I remember staring at the ceiling and wondering what I was doing with my life. Then, the realization suddenly hit me that my days of fun and games were over, and I had to work harder if I wanted to succeed in life. Otherwise, I would end up weak and wounded in the hospital like I did this time. I developed an appreciation for the Hobbesian view of the world, the “survival of the fittest” model.

Leaving for a travel trip to meet the team on an island in Japan

I flew to America for college when I turned 18 with a completely new mindset. My experiences playing football in Japan taught me discipline, time management, self-motivation and the value of simply working hard. I was what you would call an ambitious teen, itching to push himself to the limits and expand his boundaries. My second year in college, I was on the Varsity football team spending three hours a day six times a week playing soccer, had a student government role as Dorm President, and also started up a new organization dedicated to providing substance-free and interactive programming. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle everything, but I promised myself before college that I was going to push myself. My time in college was the first time in my life that I set out on a journey with an almost insatiable thirst for growth. For a while, nothing went well for me. I was not a starter for soccer, I was criticized as House President, no one came to the events of my organization, and I was spending most days alone in my room. In hindsight, I now see why many people look back at their adversity in a positive light, attributing the dark days to what made them who they are today. I realized the simplest lesson of all—over time, perseverance and diligence pays off in character at the very least.

First successful event our organization put on

My plane ride back to Japan from New York the summer of 2016 was the first time I remember thinking more about the past than the future. I’m sitting on the chairs at the gates, staring out the window and thinking about how blessed I am to have had met such incredible people on my journey. I think about how much I have changed since going to college; I used to dislike people that I disagreed with, but I realized that the world cannot actually move forward without people who are unwavering in their beliefs. When two people are arguing for long enough, both sides develop followers and spur greater debates and discussions. In the midst of this, people from both sides create enemies, indeed, but also new friends. A lack of discussion leaves people in the dark, and some may say that being disliked is still better than being shunned. It strikes me that most of my life, I have tried pleasing people and avoiding confrontations; the Japanese side in me chooses harmony and peace over creative destruction. This is terrible in the business world, and I have changed my attitudes accordingly, but simply as a person, I think this is perhaps something I can call my own. Going to Vassar has made me realize that in the end, we get to call our own virtues.

John F. Kennedy Airport on my way back to Japan in 2015 (I think)

By the time I was flying to England for my study abroad trip, I didn’t have a hint of nervousness or even excitement. Don’t get me wrong: I was ecstatic to be going to England and incredibly grateful for the opportunity, but I already had an idea of what life would be like. I would try to meet new people, make new friends and try new things. I was calm about the whole ordeal because I had developed this theory about going abroad. I believe that there are certain kinds of people that I will meet no matter where I go. There are people who will remind you of someone you met in the past, and you will instantly recognize that feeling. In this sense, with time, I have overcome the feeling of homesickness, as over time I will meet the same friends over and over again. It’s quite possible that I haven’t explored the world enough to disprove my own theory, but so far I’m sticking to it. It’s strange to think that to someone else, I might actually remind them of yet another person I have never met. This mindset has made me appreciate the various individuals, character traits and personalities I encounter throughout the world, and how I’ll never forget the friends I make because there will always be someone who will remind me of them somewhere down the line.

Talking about my experiences abroad on national radio!


Zander Bashaw | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

Zander Bashaw | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

More Freedom in Italy

My second month in Italy has been an effective loosening of the leash on the part of the program directors. Perhaps that is a bad metaphor, because the program trips on the first weekend to see mosaics and towers are not a limiting or controlling experience in the slightest. What I mean to say is that our tours around Bologna and nearby cities were similar to taking a dog for a spin around the suburbs, and in contrast, this past month has been an utter dog park, in which the only boundaries are my poor planning skills and my ever-dwindling bank account balance.

I submitted the last post from the Bologna airport before a four day adventure in Budapest with six other kids on the program, three of them fellow Vassar students. Having survived a flight with my knees crammed into the back of a seat clearly designed for smaller Europeans, we arrived to our Airbnb on the West side of Budapest. Highlights from the next few days include an exceptional day trip to Vienna and a view of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece “The Kiss” that in person could make even an Act I Scrooge emote. It was also remarkable to visit the outdoor baths in Budapest and see hundreds of pruney-fingered people relaxing together, regardless of nationality. I found that environment hard to leave, aside from the fact that doing so meant a 100 foot walk through the bitter cold air.

One weekend, I decided on a whim that I wanted to do a day trip to Florence, alone. One thing that has definitely taken a hit here in Italy has been my time spent, as they say here “da solo.” Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that Italians are quite friendly and social, even to strangers. It might also also stem from having a roommate. Regardless, without the quantity of homework that forced me to garrison myself in a cell of the library basement like a monk in one of the monasteries I have visited, I have found myself secretly yearning to unlock my apartment to find it empty, at least just for a little while. Thus, I decided to catch one of the first fast trains out, and the last one back to Bologna for a complete day in the city. Having had a bit of an experience last month with works of art that are dozens of times more powerful than when they came from a projector, I figured I would need all the time I could get.

Perhaps because it was a bit cloudy, maybe because February is the tourism offseason, or because I timed the day well, but I spent a total of 15 of minutes in line all day, roughly equivalent to how long I stood in front of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The Uffizi gallery was European Art History’s greatest hits album. Room after room was filled with items from my Art 105 monument list handout. I pondered how, apart from her divinity of course, Botticelli’s Venus could stand on a clam in that position so effortlessly. I reveled at the pained look on the replicate Laocoön as he and his children are killed by serpents, remembering my own pain of translating that scene of the Aeneid. I enjoyed seeing the Baptism of Christ, a work that Leonardo co-painted with his mentor, and being able to clearly identify the parts completed by the young genius by their distinct style. When my mentors let me engage in a project, it usually results in a few ruined experiments, not a world renowned work of art.

Because I had savvily Googled “things to do in Florence,” the day mostly passed in expected splendor. However, there was one unexpected spectacle that was truly absurd. As I approached the Piazza Santa Croce, I discovered a crowd of people around a makeshift arena filled with sand and an assortment of paunchy old men in Renaissance-era clothing competing in a strange sport that involves colliding with each other and tossing a ball around. I learned from asking the Florentines also watching that the game is called “calcio storico” (historic soccer), or calcio fiorentino, and has roots in the Renaissance. The game seems to be a combination of handball and rugby, in which teams try to move a heavy ball to the other end of the pitch and score a “caccia” by throwing it into an elevated net that sits a few feet above the ground and spans the width of the field. However, they must be accurate, because an attempt missed over the net is a half point to the other team. From what I saw there is almost no physical contact that is illegal; even the old men were striking each other with tremendous force. Of course, as a perennial intramural tryhard, I was thrilled to watch, not just the game, but the traditional serenading of the winners by others who had watched the match also dressed in clothes from 500 years ago. I found out later that traditionally the winning team would also receive a cow, but sadly I did not see this happen.

A modern Renaissance man outside the calcio storico field
Calcio storico

For some reason, among all my plans for that day, unexpectedly finding the calcio storico match—which a bartender later told me was in honor of a game held in this same location in 1530 when the city was under siege—was the most entertaining and enlightening. Seeing the figures crashing in the sand to the delight of the locals and tourists alike brought more vitality into the austere environment presented by the Duomo, Ghiberti’s gold doors, or the gigantic David.

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 3

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 3

This week, I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired, so I decided to try something new—write down everything that pops into mind with no particular structure. I begin with updates on the four Catz Football teams, followed by my rather humiliating experiences trying out ballroom dancing, a very short description of the Japan Society, and to top it all off, some inspirational quotes from my roommate Clark! Be warned, if you’re reading the this in class, Clark may make you “laugh out loud.” Of course, there were actually several interesting things I did in the periods between this post and my last post, but I’ll save those for items to use in future posts.

The path I take to class, though I don’t get to cross the bridge


Updates on Football

The St. Catz Firsts team is leading the top division by a comfortable six points. If we win the next two games, we officially win the title as the strongest team in Oxford for the first time in St. Catz history as far as the recorded stats show. LET’S DO THIS, LADS!

The St. Catz Seconds team is in the Cuppers semi-finals. I still don’t really know what the Cuppers is, but apparently it’s a big deal. LET’S GO, MATES!

In perhaps the most impressive feat of them all however, the St. Catz Thirds team has (drum roll please)—escaped relegations in a mighty 1-1 draw against the invincible Worcester College!! LET’S NOT GET RELEGATED, FRIENDS!

Finally, the St. Catz MCR Team is still leading the pack in the MCR division, AND we are still in the Cuppers tournament. LET’S CARRY ON, umm…PARTNERS! 

The old uniform I use for St. Catz Football


A Ballroom Mishap
Yes, you heard that right: I am in the Ballroom dancing class! So far, I can tell you that football skills and dancing skills are not transferrable. Apparently, you’re NOT supposed to run around like a chicken and kick things as hard as you can.

In what was perhaps one of the most embarrassing moments of our Oxford experience so far, Clark and I had both mistaken an Intermediate Ballroom lesson as a Beginners Salsa lesson. We got a strange feeling the moment we entered the room because people were slow-dancing in leather shoes.

I asked Clark, “Is this salsa dancing?”, to which he replied,

“I think it’s a waltz.” And I just said,

“Oh, ok, makes sense…”

…oblivious to the fact that Waltzing is actually a move in Ballroom dancing.

To make a long story short, we made fools of ourselves in front of the entire class just ten minutes into the lesson when we were kindly led out the door. Though we were properly embarrassed, Clark and I laughed our way back to our rooms.

The following week, I went by myself as Clark wasn’t feeling the jibes. This time, I double-checked that I got the room correct so I wouldn’t accidentally waltz into an advanced Zumba class or something. I made it to the right lesson and the music started, but at a certain point I realized that I was moving like a robot. Soccer is all about breaking the rhythm of the defender, so I just found it incredibly difficult to move at the same beat for prolonged periods.

I would get the order of my footsteps all wrong, so the lesson basically turned out to be me saying to my poor partner, “oh my, wrong foot,” “sorry about tha—sorry, my fault,” “left, left, le-right, le—wait, give me a second.”

If you were a spectator, you would see one guy moving robotically to classical music muttering the word “sorry” every three beats, and his partner being polite and laughing nervously.

The Blavatnik School of Government, known for its modern architecture

Japan Society
There is a Oxford Japan Society, but they put on relatively few events throughout the term. They do, however, organize a nice trip to a Japanese restaurant called Edamame once every three weeks. The food was very expensive but it tasted like authentic Japanese food, so that was really exciting! Other than this, the society set-up a “Bar Crawl” event, which was the first bar crawl I went to in my life. Every Oxford College has its own bar, so we were scheduled to go around to Baliol and Hartford College. I ended up only going to Hartford as I was pretty exhausted already, but I got to meet some incredible Japanese scholars whom I consider friends now!


Great Quotes From Clark

For those of you who know him, my Vassar and Oxford roommate Clark has a very witty sense of humor that cracks me up at the most unexpected of times. With his permission, I thought I’d share some with you every week. Here are a few of them so far:

  • I asked Clark as a joke, “Permission to take a shower?”, and he replied very seriously, “yeah but keep the doors closed.” I’ve never showered with them open before.
  • It was a rainy day and we were jogging to the bookstore as it was twenty minutes before closing time. Perhaps a bit agitated with the running, he suddenly mutters to me, “how nerdy do you have to be to jog to the bookstore?” Well, apparently nerdy enough to read Plato’s Politics for fun (yes, he does that).
  • In the St. Catz library, there is an area where the lamps are hanging a good ten feet from the ceiling rather than being propped up on a table like regular lamps. I admit it, I thought it was impractical too, but the librarian was kindly explaining to us how to use the computer system so I paid no mind. Then, Clark looks me dead in the eye as if he’s just had an epiphany and says, “I feel like that’s a little excessive for some lamps.” For some reason, I thought the timing of the comment was absolutely genius.
Clark lost in a maze ten minutes after I finished
Jackson Ingram | Madrid, Spain | Post 1

Jackson Ingram | Madrid, Spain | Post 1

Ironically, I’m writing my first blog post about Spain while on my way back to the United States. The plane is almost empty—I guess not many people have to make a day-trip to Chicago—and it’s the perfect time to finally force myself to write this because I’m so sure nothing else exciting can happen before my deadline. Please God let me be right.

My creative writing professors told me not to start any piece of writing with a flashback, but in Spain all bets are off. Cue the harpist and start the wavy-screen, 90s-style flashback transition.

A few days into January, I found myself sitting in the St. Louis International Airport, staring at a vending machine. This was not just any vending machine, but the exact same one from which I had bought dinner the last time I was in the St. Louis International Airport, when an ice storm stranded me there for seven hours. There’s really no better way to de-stress from finals than spending your last $1.75 on a snack-sized bag of Sun Chips (Harvest Cheddar, obviously) and a cup of instant coffee. By the time my ride could make it there, I was pretty much over the St. Louis International Airport. But come January, I would have given anything to spend another seven hours in those horrible blue chairs if it meant not having to leave the country. I did not want to go to Spain.

Hello Darkness, my old friend.

While many of the students in my program either grew up with Spanish or took like 80 AP courses in it, I started learning when I got to college. While they held full conversations with cashiers and waiters, I was mangling even the most basic colloquial phrases into flaming piles of linguistic garbage. Last semester, as I compulsively joked about probably dying while abroad, people would ask me, “If you’re so bad at Spanish, why are you going to Spain?” I will get back to you on that, as soon as I’m sure I’ve figured it out for myself.

For better or worse, I made it to Granada (after spending another seven hours in JFK because I can’t get enough of airports), not at all ready for 10 days of orientation, but accepting the fact that it was going to happen to me whether I wanted it to or not. As I powered through my first Never-ending Lunch in Granada, I realized that if social anxiety was an obstacle for me in English, it’d literally kill me in Spanish. Three hours later, I wasn’t dead, though if they brought out one more course, I might’ve been. For Spaniards, food and socializing go mano a mano. Okay, yes, I realize that’s kind of a thing everywhere, but it’s really a thing here. At Vassar, I try not to spend more than 30 minutes in the Deece (long enough to get an omelet and get out before I become one with the yellow walls). Here, meals last indefinitely.

Here we are, begging our waiter for the check.

Luckily, everyone in my program has been really patient with me as I articulate complex and though-provoking phrases such as “¿Dónde están los aseos?” and “qué guay.” But really, the other students are great, even if they think my self-deprecation is a cry for help. In that sense, nothing has changed since Vassar. I’m still surrounded by incredibly smart, sometimes intimidating, but genuinely wonderful groups of peers wherever I go. There is no escape.

Not that I [usually] wanted one. Granada is gorgeous. While I only caught like, 50 percent of what was said on the guided tours, the places we visited would be indescribable in any language. Granada is old. Like, really old. And you can really feel yourself moving through layers of history in each cobblestone street. The Alhambra was, of course, the highlight. It’s a fortress held by the Nasrid dynasty, the last Arab-Muslim one of Spain. After centuries of religious warfare, the Alhambra bears the weight of each transition of power. Now, the intricate Islamic art and sprawling gardens have been restored, but as I trailed after our guide (a vibrant professor named Mary Carmen), I felt the pull between Granada’s rich history and the tourism that dominates the Spanish economy. As an American student, a visitor, and, of course, a tourist myself, I tried not to take in these spaces at face value and even did some research in English after each tour to make sure I better understood their significances.

Alhambra, as seen from the streets.

We also spent our mornings taking crash courses in language and history in the Centro de Lenguas Modernas, a branch of the Universidad de Granada, but our orientation wasn’t all academic. Los monitores, a group of older students paid to hang out with us, provided a quick rundown of the Spanish nightlife and formally introduced us to tapas, the most beautiful combination of wine and appetizers that you can imagine. The food has been amazing, but unfortunately, Spaniards are obsessed with two things (besides fútbol and walking really slowly): ham and fried food (although there’s surprisingly little bacon here). As someone in remission from Chron’s disease, there are two things that I absolutely cannot eat: ham and fried food. Ordering anything at a restaurant is a game of intestinal Russian roulette, but my friends have helped me double-check ingredients before I order. Plus I think I’ve learned all the different words for pork now, so we should be good.

Speaking of which, if you’re reading this and you’re a student with a chronic health condition preparing to study abroad, please for the love of Jesus, get your medicine in advance and bring it all with you on the plane. All of it. Apparently international customs isn’t super down with large quantities of auto-inject needles entering the country unsupervised and, if you have my luck, your insurance won’t cover your prescription outside the U.S.

This is what landed me on this plane to Chicago in the first place. If I want my intestines to keep working for the next four months, I have to fly back for a hot second, grab my medication in bulk and then drag my butt back across the Atlantic to Spain. It’s a huge pain, not to mention a financial burden, so learn from my mistakes, [email protected] Don’t worry. There are plenty more to come.

Rachel Ludwig | Paris, France | Post 1

Rachel Ludwig | Paris, France | Post 1

In between finding out that I had been accepted into the Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris and actually arriving in France, there was about a year’s worth of build up. A year of telling family, friends, old high school teachers, priests, or basically anyone that my mom’s ever talked to for more than 45 seconds that I would be studying in Paris. It’s funny because when you have that much time to anticipate a whole chunk of your life that has been carefully set aside for your intellectual and cultural cultivation, the expectations start to pile up. By the end of it, I’m pretty sure my family—and myself to some extent—envisioned me traveling off to the city of lights with a steamer trunk, a feathered hat and a parasol—the true “Vassar Girl Abroad.”

Jardin de Luxembourg

Fast forward to this January. We’ve touched down in Paris and a fun combination of exhaustion and self-doubt has replaced the excitement that’s supposed to accompany the announcement, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Paris. I’m also avoiding eye contact with the poor passenger next to me whose arm I may or may not have grabbed mid-flight in a turbulence-induced panic. Shuffling off the plane and through the bowels on Charles de Gaulle Airport, I don’t feel as though I’ve really “arrived.”

That feeling of displacement cements itself as I slough through my first few days, facing the unexpectedly biting Paris cold ( lies) and the complete disappearance of the familiar yellow orb that normally floats in the sky. All parasol related imagery vanishes completely when on the last day of orientation—coincidentally the day that we’re going to move into our host stays—I find a thriving colony of ants in my suitcase, volcanically spewing from a box of chocolates I had brought for my new host family, milling about extent of my worldly possessions.

But now I’m a month in, the ants are gone (to my knowledge) and finally, I think Paris and I have come to an understanding. For me, the biggest learning curve was actually figuring out how to live in a city. On some primordial level, I believe my small-town, Midwestern instincts have been actively fighting against this change. Take for instance the seemingly simple process of “figuring out the metro.” For the average person, this means looking at a Paris metro map and understanding that there are multiple lines and that each line goes in two different directions. On my first attempt at taking the metro, I got stuck in between the turnstile and the push barrier and had to be forcibly extracted by an exasperated Parisian. From that point on, it took me essentially the entirety of January to become accustomed to the subtle art of getting on and off the metro (preferably at the right stop), as well as the glassy-eyed death stare of the Parisian commuter.

The icy Parisian stare, also known as “froncer les sourcils”

As a people, Parisians collectively have this air of “I know exactly where I’m going and exactly what I am going to do once I get there.” Even Parisian children seem to have this excess of purpose as they fly past you at alarmingly fast speeds on their possibly government mandated scooters (I have yet to see a Parisian child without one). There’s also a sort of Parisian uniform that includes a dark formal coat, a carefully draped scarf and a handbag/briefcase. Thus far I have managed the coat and scarf aspects, although my draping leaves something to be desired.

But that is a depiction of Parisians from afar. Up close, underneath the coat/scarf/bag ensemble, all the Parisians I’ve met have been exceptionally warm, funny individuals. This has especially been the case for my two hosts, Catherine and Thierry. The couple has been hosting students for the past ten years and they are exceptionally good at it. They handled my plague of insects like a couple of pros and have been amusedly guiding me through my Parisian trials ever since. Just last week they nursed me through a particularly bad cold, over the course of which I was brought salmon and toast points in bed and put through a rigorous set of thyme-infused steam inhalations. It was to date the fanciest period of ailment I have ever experienced and perhaps restored a bit of my Vassar Girl Abroad fantasy.

In a way, that’s been the theme of my past week or two here, that is the “restoration” of my faith in Paris. Slowly but surely, I’ve been re-inflating the balloon inside me labeled “Rachel’s Super High Expectations/Longstanding Paris Dreams.” Finally, it’s warm enough for me to wear my J.Crew Factory Warehouse Outlet pea coat (the height of true elegance) and stroll about the city with some concept of where exactly I’m going. For all of my griping about Paris being mean to me and my asthmatic bird lungs, I’m incredibly lucky to be here and every day my resolve to go out and just be in Paris grows stronger. The other day, I decided on a whim to track down this illustrious falafel place that I had read about and after a delicious, but somewhat regrettable lunch of 14 falafels, I just walked around the Marais and then over to the Notre Dame. No pictures, no map reading, just enjoying the view from across the river, trying my very best to not look like a tourist.

Notre Dame de Paris

Settling in somewhere new is never easy, but gradually I’m filling up my little bulletin board with opera and museum tickets, my notebooks with frantically scribbled notes in Frenglish, and my coin purse with little five centime coins that I seem to be incapable of spending. I’ve had art class at the Centre Pompidou, theatre class at the Comedie Français, and have accidentally followed my Nouvelle Sorbonne literature professor into the bathroom. If anything, at this point I’ve graduated to at least “entry-level Parisian” status and as long as I keep working on my scarf draping, I think I’ll be ok.

Stairs at Montmartre
Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 2

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 2

How I ended up playing for four football teams at Oxford

As an offering to the soccer gods, it is my pleasure to announce that I have successfully managed to join all four male football (soccer) teams at St. Catherine’s College. The undergraduate team has three teams that each have incredibly unique names: The Firsts, The Seconds, and The Thirds. I’m still getting used to this new naming system, but apparently the First team is the most competitive, the Second team is the second most competitive and the Third team is the third most competitive. I know right, I get it mixed up too sometimes, so I secretly categorize them in my own head as; The Jackrabbits, The Flying Squirrels and The Terminator, respectively.

The fourth team I am on is the Graduate students team who call themselves the “St. Catherine’s Football Club.” When I first got a notification on FB from the “St. Catherine’s Football Club,” I had no idea which of the four teams the practice was for. I emailed the captain of The Seconds and he told me it wasn’t for them, “it’s probably for The Thirds.” But I knew The Thirds only practice on Saturdays, so I went to practice thinking it was for The Firsts. I turned up to practice as one of the few players without a beard. As it turns out, it was for the Graduate team, which I guess one can technically call The Firsts, as there is only one Graduate team.

I never intended to play in four teams at St. Catz, but the mates in the MCR team (MCR=terminology for graduate program) were so tight-knit and friendly that I decided I would stay on this team no matter what. But I am used to three hours of practice every day back at Vassar, so the one practice/game per week schedule didn’t allow me to burn off all the calories I was eating. Thus, I went to The Thirds practice and the mates were so tight-knit and friendly that I decided I would stay on this team no matter what. But if I was going to play football, I wanted to play for the best team we had. So I played in The Firsts game and…It was really fun.

At this point, I didn’t see the point of trying to decide which teams to join as I was already in three of the four except for The Seconds. I mean, imagine having to tell someone, “Yeah, I play on the MCR team, along with The Firsts and Thirds for the JCR.. No, not The Seconds, just Firsts and Thirds—I—I don’t know, no, they seemed nice it’s just—”. And here I am now, playing for four teams at Oxford! To be fair though, the fields have a tendency to freeze over due to the chill, so about half of our games end up getting cancelled. So I haven’t really been hit by the full force of four games/week yet, though I shall report back to you all how successfully this goes for me.

I guess they thought I was the manager.


You did well Kenichi…

I’m also in the Oxford University Travel Society, which hosts around three trips per trimester. On January 29th, we had a trip to Winchester where we got to see Winchester College—apparently the oldest operating public school in Europe having been built in 1382 (the world…?). My friend and I were joking about the sudden loss of prestige it would get if it were named “Winchester High School” instead of “Winchester College.”

Anyways, the high school itself did indeed have an incredible air of time, tradition and excellence. The school was home to some brilliant display of Victorian and Medieval architecture that one couldn’t help but be mesmerized by. A particularly memorable moment was when we were walking down an alleyway and in the stone bricks were engravings made by past students. One of them had the date “1919” and it struck me that there could have been engravings on here that I missed that could have been over 500 years old or something. There was a memorial for past students who passed away on campus and one of them had a Japanese name. He ran in a school race and came first, but he suffered a heart attack immediately afterwards and never recovered. Our tour guide said the Japanese carvings in his plate said “You got first Kenichi,” but it actually said “You did well Kenichi.” I later told our tour guide this, and she told me “Bless you, I can finally get it right.”

They apparently call the 70 students on Financial Aid as “The Scholars” and the remaining students “The Commoners,” which I couldn’t help but let out a smile during the tour. The tuition is a staggering 36,000 pounds, but the school is a feeder school for elite institutions such as OxBridge, Harvard, Yale etc. so for many this is money well spent. There were so many other fascinating aspects to the school, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination. Our next trip is to Leeds Castle and Canterbury, which I am looking forward to!

Winchester Cathedral, the longest Cathedral in Europe
Wow this was just amazing. I wondered how long it took the architects to make all this…

Ballroom dancing

Yes, you heard that right, I am in the Ballroom dancing class! So far, I can tell you that football skills and dancing skills are not transferrable. I won’t go into much other detail than that, but just keep that in mind if you want to try new things. I haven’t had enough lessons yet to see if I’m genetically incompatible with dancing, but I will have to wait and see.

Japan Society

The Oxford Japan Society has very few events, but they do organize a nice trip to a Japanese restaurant called Edamame once every three weeks. Other than this, the society set up a “Bar Crawl” event, which was the first bar crawl I went to in my life. Every Oxford College has its own bar, so we were scheduled to go around to Baliol and Hartford. I ended up only going to Hartford as I was pretty exhausted by the day before the event, but I got to meet some incredible Japanese scholars studying here for a Graduate program. I hope to be able to seen them again soon!

Next week I’ll talk about what Clark and I do for food and some other random things! 😛

Zander Bashaw | Bologna, Italy | Post 1

Zander Bashaw | Bologna, Italy | Post 1

Just to preface this, I have not composed anything in English outside of messaging apps or Snapchat captions in almost a month, so if my phrasing seems a little out of whack, it’s not my fault that I’m worldly. It is my fault that I seem to only have the capacity to master prepositions in one language total. I noticed this because along with my now moderate capacity at getting Italian prepositions right, I also have said things to the fellow Americans in my program such as “you aren’t going to the right direction.” Just to be clear that would be utterly wrong translated in Italian as well.

The first experience that the other 16 American students on my program shared upon was that we had almost no idea what our life would be like these next five months. And I don’t mean that in a cliché way as in “I had no idea what to expect wow!” But actually we had received next to no information apart from our travel plans and that we would be picked up by the program leaders and transported to our respective “Studentati” (dorms). We had no idea who/ how many other students we would be living with, where these dorms were, if we would have roommates, or where and when school would start, etc. Interestingly, Italians don’t seem to see this as a problem. My best friend from home is so organized that he probably knows how many drawers there are in the desk at the job he has already secured for his three years out of college. I can only imagine how he would respond to “You’ll find out about your schedule and living arrangements several hours after you deplane.”

Italians it seems don’t understand this plight, and things tend to go day by day here. For example, I bought a panino (we americans say a panini, which is unfortunately the plural)  from a hole in the wall place the other day, and the lady that works there didn’t have enough change for me, but she and I just decided that I could come back next time and pay less to make up the difference.

Actually, I think that starting off with a bunch of unknowns was actually an ideal way to go into this abroad experience. On my first free day, I wandered around the city in a jetlagged haze; I tagged along into a mass just so that I could see the inside of a church. I grabbed a piece of pizza and had a fun conversation with an adorable four-year-old who had the same slice as I did, and I think I was able to successfully hide from her and her parents my resentment that she was more adept than I at knowing the genders of nouns.

Walking around the center of the city represents such a collision of modern and older cultures. I saw a tiny kid pushing a mini plastic shopping cart and not listening to his mother under the looming gothic basilica San Petronio, that first began construction in 1390. McDonalds (pronounced here as “MacDonald’s”) are perched on the corners of streets where scholars from the University of Bologna have walked since 1088. I myself was guilty of taking a selfie with one of the lions that guard a church in nearby city Modena, which was consecrated in 1184.

Basilica di San Petronio

Perhaps it’s because I’m one of the few people that doesn’t live here all the time, but I find it so funny to see people going about their daily business without a second glance at these unfathomably ancient and important monuments. I saw a lady angry with her dog “raggu” telling him to sit (in Italian which of course he understood perfectly) under an stunning Roman arcade. I suppose that’s what happens when you live somewhere for long enough; God forbid I ever have to look at the fucking Liberty Bell again.

The community theatre in Bologna

While it would be excessively dull to go over how many things I have said “che bello” at, I must reference my moment of Joycean “aesthetic arrest.” It happened at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, a city characterized by its mosaics. I extensively studied, or rather lazily reclined as the art history professors in Art 105 tried to stress the importance and beauty of these works. I did not really understand until I was there, staring up at each vibrant, expertly placed piece, not caring that my neck was sore or that my tour group was leaving. My high school once tried to champion the phrase “be here now” to encourage us focus on each moment and experience. While that did not go so well at the time, I can assure you that in San Vitale in Ravenna, I was only there, arrested, as I can only imagine hundreds of thousands of visitors have been since 547 when the church was completed.

Despite this incredible beauty I have gotten to witness, every excellent wine buzz, the fact that I cut through a dog park to walk to class, I look at the news from home with trepidation every morning. As surreal as it must feel to be in the states in a time like this, it’s almost weirder being here. This isn’t to say that the Italians don’t care. Almost every Italian I meet wants to ask me about Trump, and I can honestly say that I didn’t expect to say “odio” as much as I have during my time here. 

The news pieces coming in have strangely coincided with learning about Italian fascism in my intensive Italian course. Other, better heads have analyzed the similarities better than I could. However, one thing that I can say is that during our latest unit we also studied “I partigiani,” the Italians who bravely resisted the fascists, often resulting in their own brutal deaths. We visited a monument on sheer cliffs outside Bologna where 100 Italians in the Resistance were killed and pushed off the cliffs by German soldiers, many of them between the ages of 18 and 25. I’m not going to say that the Trump administration will go as far as fascist Italy, but if it happens, maybe we can draw lessons from these stories, this history in order to effectively combat a corrupt regime.

The monument outside of Bologna where the rebels were executed